OPRAmachine: 1 Year Later

One year ago today, I launched OPRAmachine, and it has been making a significant impact on all levels of New Jersey government since its inception.

OPRAmachine began with a simple premise: to maximize government transparency in New Jersey by automatically publishing public records requests & responses.

The site’s unique approach to public records helps individuals get answers to their personal OPRA requests, but also serves the entire community by contributing to a growing statewide archive of public knowledge.

Public records that normally would have been provided to just one requestor are now stored in perpetuity and infinitely accessible to others that may have an interest in them using the service, something that proprietary solutions like GovQA fail to adequately do.

New Jersey is a state that has been known for its many layers of government, with 565 municipalities and countless school districts, MUAs and other independent authorities. OPRAmachine makes navigating the various layers of government simple for both those new to requesting public records and those with experience.

Rather than hunting for email addresses on town websites or dealing with poorly designed online systems that are relics of a bygone era in web design, OPRAmachine is realizing the dream of a single, unified & open platform for transparency in all 21 counties of the state.

I first came up with the idea of creating a site like OPRAmachine in late 2016 and began working on testing and customizing the open-source code that powers the site throughout 2017. By October of last year, we pulled back the curtain and let the public start making requests.

The early days of the site were wrought with technical challenges, and high demand in the first weeks resulted in OPRAmachine’s server being brought down multiple times. After overcoming those initial challenges, we were proud to have no major downtime during business hours that would have prevented responses to public records requests being received by our server.

Since October, 2017, OPRAmachine has seen:
  • 3000 public records requests
  • 2151 followup messages sent
  • 410 registered users
  • 937 public bodies
  • 109 annotations added to requests
  • 253 tracked requests

In the days and months that followed the launch, the site has since taken on a life of its own, and I continue to be impressed by the new use cases that have emerged as more people began to adopt the site.

We have an incredible, diverse group of users who have benefitted from the site. Our users represent a cross-section of the stakeholders that benefits from increased access to public information.

They include attorneys, traditional & digital journalists, college professors, real estate & property management professionals, public officials, private investigators, environmental consultants and perhaps most importantly, private citizens interested in learning more about the inner workings of their state & local government.

Some of our users have benefitted from OPRAmachine without even making a request of their own. Some receive email alerts for specific towns and keywords found in requests, while our full collection of documents is indexed by search engines like Google and often appears in their results.

Whatever their individual use case may be, the common thread among them has been that our paperless, streamlined process has simplified the public records request process while saving time & resources for all concerned.

OPRAmachine could not have seen the level of success that it has without the support it has received from our stakeholders & community. I’d like to thank all of our users, especially our most persistent requestors as well as our volunteer administrator, Jeff Epstein, who has handled many issues with the site & inquiries from users when I am unavailable.

I would also like to thank the government officials that have had a dialogue with me in the course of running the service & dealing with administrative issues. I found it heartening that many of the township clerks I engaged with appreciated the mission of the site and the increased transparency it provides residents.

Also deserving of recognition is our legal counsel, CJ Griffin, Esq. and Walter Luers, Esq. They have both been tremendous assets and we would be at a significant disadvantage without their expertise.

While I am optimistic about the success we have attained in just one short year, there are some significant hurdles that we still must overcome to ensure the continued success of OPRAmachine. Going forward, the challenge will be to educate certain reactionary government officials about the benefits of the service and advocating for legislative reform that favors electronic disclosure.

It is my goal to work with government agencies as much as we can, but when all else fails, we will pursue litigation against those government agencies that arbitrarily & unlawfully refuse to process requests on the basis that they are submitted through the site, and encourage our users to do the same.

In closing, we’ve covered a lot of ground during the first year of OPRAmachine’s existence, but our work is far from over. Thank you all of those who have supported us on this journey.

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Gavin Rozzi
Journalist, Public Records Researcher & Web Developer

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